From the altar, Father Huck -- that's his name, all right -- warns, "Daytona Beach is a town of hucksters," and he isn't talking about his relatives. A wild-eyed man comes up from the beach and asks, "Who won the race? Ain't they run the race?" Driving down the coast road, just by the Howard Johnson's, a woman takes a right turn and rams her little black car into a parked 18-wheeler, and it sticks there, embedded in the truck's side. Why? How? This is before the sun comes up.
First light uncovers a sea of vehicles, parked bumper to bumper, door handle to door handle, scarcely a free patch of grass left in the mammoth infield of the Daytona International Speedway. The Great American Campout awaits today's Great American Stock Car Race, the Daytona 500.
They're tumbling out of the fancy, chrome-covered mobile homes and the crusty pickups and trusty vans, wiping sleep from their eyes. Taped to one windshield is a brown-paper sign: "Would you beleave (sic) that sucker runs 205.114. Wild Bill #9," a tribute to the race's favorite, boyish Bill Elliott.
Beer cans pop, but most begin drinking black coffee. Everybody's survived the night, some just barely. Steady, now.
Already, they're drifting to the tall wire fences surrounding the rows of garages, looking for their hero-drivers, squinting in the half-light for a glimpse. "Who's that?" one man asks another. The answer, "He ain't no race car driver."
Inside the fences, the auto city is alive with the tweak of wrenches and smell of paint and sight of men leaning over fenders, burrowing deep under hoods, clumps of them ministering to each machine, as if performing major surgery.
Junior Johnson, the original good ol' boy, is standing there with his hands in his pockets. It's still cold. The question is, how's his driver, Darrell Waltrip, in his Budweiser Chevrolet, going to keep up with Bill Elliott in his never-before-equaled Thunderbird? Or for that matter, Cale Yarborough in his Thunderbird?
"Well," says Johnson, a big man who speaks with a deep drawl, "they're goin' to be tough, they're goin' be tough to outrun. But you know, it's tough to run 500 miles, even when you aren't racin' nobody. We jus' goin' to go as hard as we can go and see where we end up."
Richard Petty's No. 43 Pontiac is humming under the yellow shed, and the king of the stock cars looks as if he might be too, if you could hear. "Hey, Richard," screams a fan behind the fence. Petty hears, waves, smiles.
Worried? Not these drivers. Talk all you want about speed and danger and the crunchin' that went on at the "calamity corner" last year. Nobody has the shakes here, not yet. Tall Buddy Baker stolls through the alley, wearing a black jacket and charcoal slacks, signing autographs, posing with women as husbands snap the pictures, politely answering questions into the Action News camera right in front of his nose.
Groups of men and women make small talk.
Man: "We had the time of our lives in Charlotte."
Woman: "I got y'all a bunch of pins" -- pins is pronounced as a multisyllable word -- "and then I never saw you again."
Man: "Charlotte, one wild place."
The sun is up, it's warming, the racing teams are working faster. All over the place, they're pumping air into the big tires. One man holds a white racer's helmet, spits on it, shines it lovingly with a soft rag.
A public address announcement: "Gennemen, we're ready to put these cars through the inspection. You must be on the pit road by 11 o'clock, so let's shake a leg, git 'em through the inspection line."
Here comes a tour of oil-company business people being led over to Elliott. Elliott's as cool as Petty and Baker and the red-cheeked Yarborough. The tall, red-haired Elliott poses for photos, shakes hands all around. "Nice meetin' y'all," he says.
Hordes -- hordes -- surround Petty's garage door. When one wave recedes, another rolls up. Richard Petty is the one they love. "Y'all enjoy, y'all enjoy," he's saying.
One of the first to the scales -- each of these Grand National stock cars must weigh 3,700 pounds -- is Petty's son Kyle. A half-dozen men are rolling up the shiny red, white and blue 7-Eleven Thunderbird, and a crowd assembles to look it over, close up. A beauty it is, all polished, and they look at it with eyes wide. "Bring 'er on up, guys."
A husky man with "Jerry" in script on the front of his red Winston's officials jacket checks the weight. He says nothing, motions the car forward laconically with an index finger. He's done this a few times.
Bobby Wawak's yellow No. 74 Chevrolet is rolled by. "All Things Are Possible," is written on it, as is "Superior Piping." Decals cover the cars: Top Cog, Speed Pro, Perfect Circle, Gatorade, Goody's . . . Some even have them under the hood. David Pearson's yellow and black Chattanooga Chew Chevrolet has its hood up right by the fence, and fans crane to see the insides of it.
Time for the drivers-crew chiefs meeting, in the garage next to the scales. A small, bald man calls roll -- "No. 47." "Yo." "No. 55." "Yeah." -- and when that's finished, chants a riot act to the assembled legends who've heard it all before but are packed under the roof, giving obligatory attention. "Be courteous . . . If you see smoke, back off . . . Don't be part of a wreck that's already happened . . . The payoff's over here in the lounge behind the NASCAR truck . . ."
Now Bill Baird speaks. A large, blond man, he is the minister of the Chapel at the Tracks. All bow their heads. "Father, we thank You for this day. We thank You for all the things we're about to do now, the things we probably like the best in life . . ."
The prayer ended, the drivers pick their way through the crowd. Baird goes on with a five-minute additional service. "Everyone needs Jesus Christ." His arms reach out.
Motors roar on the other side of the Chapel Services banner.
Tightly dressed women in high heels prance up and down the alleys, giving off waves, y'alls and sweet scents.
Macho power, sex and religion . . . all joined and stirring at the 500 shrine.
It's 11:20, the sky is blue and the Goodyear blimp is in the middle of it. Over at Elliott's garage, they've got the wheels off the T-bird that everybody is talking about, but that's nothing: At Petty's shed, they've got his engine hung on a hook.
They found a leak in Petty's regular engine and they're hurrying to put in another. All the other drivers are on the track, ready for the introductions, and they're still working on Petty's car. Men are over it, under it, and two are standing in it, under the hood next to the new engine, working their wrenches while other team members look on nervously. One cracks his knuckles; another shakes his head. Could the King miss the scheduled 12:15 start?
Furiously, eight men roll the red-and-blue Pontiac to the gas station, and while they're filling it up, the public address announcer is introducing the 40 drivers: "R-i-c-k-y R-u-d-d from Chesapeake, Va. . . ."
To the scales with the Petty car. Wind whips paper through the empty garages. Jerry still is at the scales. They all push and up goes the car to be weighed. Could Jerry's finger point any way but forward?
"Outta the way, car comin' through."
At 12:07, Petty's car is rolled into position.
When the 40 cars cross the starting line it sounds like a 747 in your front yard.
About 125,000 people are on their feet, out of their grandstand chairs, up on their campers, up against the fences. One couple is locked in passionate embrace, oblivious to the mighty roar.
They chase after Elliott, breaking from the front. But, one by one, the ol' boys pull "behind the wall," out of the race. Yarborough. Richard Petty. Bobby Allison. David Pearson. They all blow their engines except Petty, whose clutch gives out. They go out in big balls of smoke.
Nobody can catch Elliott. He wins easily with an average speed of 172.265 -- he would have had a record if the last two caution flags hadn't slowed him. He takes home $185,500 for the week. Except for the cautions, he says, wiping the smudges from his face after the trip down Victory Lane, "I don't think there was a time I ever held back.
"Even last fall, I was thinking of this one race. This is The Race. If I never win another, this will have a very special meaning to me."
A second-place finish means something. too, to Lake Speed, of Jackson, Miss., a small man with a heavy foot who used to be a Go Kart champion. He sits down to consider his accomplishment and, right here in front of a crowd -- "He ain't proud," a man says -- he cries. CAPTION: Picture 1, All the king's men can't get Richard Petty's Pontiace back into place. It was hard enough getting it ready for the track in the first place and engine was replaced. AP; Picture 2, Seven-year-old Elliott congradulates her father, who really knows how to bring hoome the bacon. They will take back $185,500 to their Dawsonville Ga., home. UPI